In our Mind Meld posts, we pose a single question to a slice of the sf/f community and, depending on the question, other folks as well.
This week, we address the the (possibly) misguided efforts of Hollywood to produce quality science fiction.
The facile answer is to say that there should be fewer crappy shows and more good ones. Just what makes a show “good” or “crappy” is, of course, purely subjective (with the caveat that anyone who disagrees with me about Heroes being crap is just kidding themselves), but I think most viewers can agree about a certain level of objective quality. Or can they?
I think when it comes to genre shows, fans are often like abused girlfriends. “He doesn’t hit me much!” They approach a show that incorporates fantastic or sfnal elements with a certain set of expectations, some of which depend on the show’s quality as a television show–writing, acting, directing, even wardrobe and sets–and some of which involve its use of the “furniture” of genre–originality of concept, execution of ideas, etc. Often, sf/f fans will excuse a considerable amount of failing in the former category if a show does reasonably well in the latter. And if the deplorable quality of writing, or the wooden acting, or the lumpen directing is called out, fans will often respond with “It could be worse” or “At least it isn’t as bad as X,” or they’ll squint and say “Yes, but look at the story arc” or “check out the orbital physics of that starfighter.”
I’m as guilty of this as the next fan, I’ll admit. I excused any number of ills from the Star Wars prequels on first viewing, just because it was Star Wars. “The plot makes no sense,” I’d say, “but hey, Yoda with a lightsaber!” Even now, when I should know better, I still have a tendency to turn a blind eye to things like logic and character and nuance when there’s whizbangery on screen, and it’s only after having a chance to mull it over that I realize that I’ve just been enjoying a gilded turd.
Worse, we stick with crappy shows on the slim hope that they might get better. “Sure, there are gaps in logic you could drive a truck convoy through, and the acting is horrible, and the script is laughably bad, but I’ll give it a few episodes to see if it gets any better.” Why? Why do we suffer through these things? I’ll tell you why, it’s because we’re all abused girlfriends, and they don’t hit us… much.
So what would I do if I ran Hollywood? Probably nothing different, if doing the same thing that they’ve always done keeps making money. Because if I do run Hollywood, all I’m really going to care about is Nielsen ratings and box-office receipts. And so long as the abused fans keep coming back for more hackneyed and poorly executed sf/f shows just because they are sf/f, there’s no reason to do any better.
The question is, what should fans do? Easy. Stop watching the crap. Ask as much of genre television (and movies, for that matter) as you would from anything else. If you’re watching a show that can’t seem to remember that if it’s daytime on one side of the planet it’s not likely to be daytime on the other side, you should probably switch off and go watch a show written by someone who knows how to read. If you turn on a show featuring actors who shouldn’t be performing amateur skits on your local cable access channel, go find something else to watch. Go find something good to watch. And if you can’t find anything good, don’t watch anything at all.
The main change I would make is keeping Journeyman on the air. As of this instant, I have seen 12 of the 13 episodes in the series thus far, and the 12th episode in and of itself is a masterpiece, easily one of the best hours of time travel ever on television, on a par with classics such as “City on the Edge of Forever” from Star Trek: The Original Series and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And yet, at this moment, Journeyman seems likely to be canceled. That a show this superb could be canceled, simply because it did attract a large enough audience in its first 12 outings, highlights what is wrong with television network programming. Despite the kudos NBC deserves for putting Journeyman on the air in the first place, NBC and network television in general needs to get over giving new series minuscule chances if they don’t establish a huge audience in the first few episodes. Otherwise, television will be even less watched than it is today, with viewers increasingly preferring YouTube and the Internet.
The main thing I would keep the same? That would be willing to give a series such as Lost a chance, when it starts to flounder. Lost had a spectacular first year, a weak second year, and a weak first half of the third season. But the finale – the switch from flashback to flashforward – was brilliant. Even though I predicted it in my InfiniteRegress.tv blog, I found it one of the most stunning twists to a story in any medium, television or otherwise.
I’d make one change. One sweeping, across the board change. Proper respect for writers.
When I lived there, a writer was lucky if he was even allowed on the set of his own film. And there is a reason that Philip K Dick is so popular with Hollywood – he’s dead, and hence, unlikely to get involved with production. (Quick prediction: the same will happen to Harlan Ellison when he’s gone.)
Name ten famous directors off the top of your head. You can do that without blinking. Now name ten famous screenwriters. I worked in Hollywood for 5 years and I can’t do it without including writer-directors and the staff writers I knew on Star Trek.
Everything descends from the writer, everything depends on the writer, everything starts with the writer.
Actors don’t know jack about narrative. They’re all anyone cares about and when they are interviewed, they are only asked about what they wear and who they sleep with. Only James Lipton ever asks them about craft, but even then, their approach to a script is to see it as an opportunity afforded to display a range of emotions, not as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And directors? I’ve talked to directors who couldn’t even tell me what they show was about – only that it contained x number of action scenes and y number of fight scenes and z number of clever shots.
Everything starts with the writer. There is nothing wrong with any Hollywood series or movie that good writing doesn’t fix. And every movie that leaves studio execs scratching their heads saying, “What went wrong? We put Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie in it?” could be fixed at the level of script.
But when a script is bought, it’s handed off to a series of spin doctors, then your star actors come in with their own paid writers who each do a draft of their respective client’s part, then the director may have a writer or two in tow, then the studio execs, who paid for the thing or at least convinced someone somewhere to do so and thus think that proves they are masters of narrative put their two cents in, and finally, it’s test marketed to an audience of teenagers and others with nothing better to do, taken randomly from shopping malls in Los Angeles (and thus the dumbest sampling of Americana one can find) and rewritten according to what this Brain Trust doesn’t like. And then the studios scratch their heads and wonder why this toffee twist of a shooting script fell flat at the box office.
If I ran Hollywood, the writers would call the shots.
But, on a smaller scale, if I have to pinpoint just one thing and make it relevant to our SF community here:
Then I’d decree that every science fiction series would have on staff one actual science fiction novelist, not to write individual episodes, but as an engineer of the major arcs of the show. Battlestar Galactica, for example, excels already on the level of the individual episode, on the level of character and drama that TV seems to have suddenly mastered so well. Where it breaks down is on the level of the backstory, the Cylon Plan that never existed, the plotting. As television drama moves more and more to a novelistic model, with individual episodes serving less as stand-alone adventures and more as chapters in an evolving, interconnected story, let’s bring in people who have experience with crafting and plotting these longer, richer narratives. Imagine if Joel Shepherd were on staff at The Bionic Woman, or John Scalzi on Battlestar Galactica, or even Larry Niven on whatever next Star Trek incarnation materializes. Fortunately, there is actually some movement in this direction, with George RR Martin set to be involved with the forthcoming HBO adaptation of his work, and with Jeff Loeb on Heroes, and other things of this nature. So maybe I won’t have to run Hollywood. Maybe it will straighten up and fly right on its own. I hope so, because I’m awful busy as is.
I’m going to have to organize my rant by bullet points:
- First, I’d have to say enough with the remakes. If you can’t come up with an original idea, you shouldn’t be in the business in the first place.
- If you’re going to go to the trouble of putting a show on the air, don’t cancel it midseason. I don’t care if the show is only mediocre, everyone want closure. And at least give it the chance of a full season.
- I think Neilson ratings are passe. A lot of people nowadays tape/dvr shows to watch later. In fact, there are probably only 2 or 3 shows that I watch live. It doesn’t mean I like the show any more or less. It means I prefer to watch my shows at my leisure, commercial-free. They definitely need to come up with a better system of rating shows and viewership.
- If I ran things, I’d be paying attention to feedback on the internet – what the viewers are actually saying about the show. The fans know best if changes need to be made. If you want to keep those viewers, you had better be listening to what they say.
- I’d also take some tips from and research the long-lasting genre shows like Stargate: SG-1, X-Files, etc. to discover what made them so successful and what the fans loved most about them. Then, I’d try to incorporate those qualities into new shows that were brought to the table. And try to revamp those that seemed to be dying.
Those are the first things that come to mind. I know I didn’t really hit much on the quality of shows. So much of that can be subjective. Personally, I hate a lot of shows that many others seem to love, so I may not be the best person to talk on that. If all that aired on the “SciFi” Channel was corny scifi (such as Dr. Who and Flash Gordon), I’d be embarrassed to call myself a scifi fan. I’d stick to character-driven scifi and fantasy tv, taking the genres a bit more serious and showing respect to the fans.
There are two answers, the political and the artistic.
Politically, Hollywood needs drastic change if it is not to continue loosing money on films that drastically alienate and provoke its main audience, the backbone of its revenue.
Bollywood, movies from India, are more wholesome, more family-friendly, have better song and dance numbers, and notably more attractive actresses. The weft of the Culture of Death hangs over our Hollywood films, which I do not scent from these overseas films. It has been many a year since I have seen a Hollywood film that does not use “philosophical product placement” to thrust one or another particularly annoying little ad for their materialistic, mildly pinko, morally relative, or anti-American world view in my face. We see such things as would make Cicero or Marcus Aurelius blush with anger, not to mention John Adams and Tom Jefferson.
I am not talking about deliberately politicized films whose anti-American bias is bold and clear, like V for Vendetta or Starship Troopers. I am talking about a universal atmosphere. Even lighthearted kiddie fare like Happy Feet or space opera like Revenge of the Sith or epics like Beowulf cannot be told in a straightforward and honest fashion, a story for the sake of a story, but some little message has to be inserted either mocking religion, or sneering at George Bush, or belittling Christianity. I call it “product placement” because it is the intrusion, never where needed, of one extraneous line or extra quip that allows the film-maker to display his political correctness. And we all know that moral relativism and multiculturalism are good right? Because only a Sith would speak in absolutes.
I should not go into what politically I would change in Hollywood if I were the benevolent dictator, because, alas, my benevolence would not last long: I approve of America, and in time of war I approve of censorship, and in my darker moods I approve of the guillotine, the auto-de-fe, and sacrifices to Cthulhu by hooded and masked High Priests not to be described on bloodstained stepped pyramids towering obscenely over the frozen plateau of Leng… and my mood has been dark indeed of late, provoked by a steady stream of pro-enemy propaganda pieces.
So let us draw a kindly veil over the terrors of the political reign of Wright the First, Hammer of the Paynims. I will say only that I am unimpressed with the patriotism of Hollywood, or even their story-telling ability. They hate the things I love and love the things I hate. I wish they would shut up about politics and religion (which your average sci fi guy has thought more about than your average film mogul anyway — our imaginations not being trapped in the here and now), and stick to art.
Artistically, I am not sure Hollywood needs any big changes to please your friendly neighborhood fanboy.
Ever since the dazzling and unprecedented success of Star Wars back in the late 1970’s, science fiction films and television went from being the very worst of popular entertainment, cheesy monster movies with lackluster special effects and bad acting, to being the best of popular entertainment. I will hold up Babylon Five or the new Battlestar Galactica, as being equal to the best-acted, best-directed, and best-written of any shows, genre or mainstream, that have graced the small screen.
Over on the ink-and-paint side of the aisle, science fictional cartoons used to be Hanna Barbara’s Johnny Quest, Space Ghost and Fantastic Four and little else besides. Bruce Timm has produced seasons, if not years, as particularly high-quality animation, true to its source material, while also producing well-written scripts and eye-pleasing animation: I am thinking of his Batman, Superman and the two Justice League shows. Avatar the Last Airbender merits special mention for its animation, writing, and sheer cleverness of concept.
Every year, the major studios scramble to produce “tentpole” and “blockbuster” films, and, every year, without exception, these are science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas. The top ten highest grossing pictures of the last ten years, with one exception, were all from science fiction, or from comic books, which are, like it or not, the stepchild field of science fiction.
For those of you who are curious, the top ten moneymakers, in order, are: Titanic, Star Wars, Shrek 2, E.T., Star Wars 4, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Spider-man, Star Wars 6, Lord of the Rings 3, Spider-Man 2.
Still Curious? Want to hear the next ten on the list? Number 11 is Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ; Jurassic Park; Lord of the Rings 2, Finding Nemo, Spider-Man 3, Forest Gump, Lion King, Shrek The Third, Transformers, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings 1. After that is another Star Wars, more Harry Potter, Independence Day, Sixth Sense, Narnia… you get the picture.
So aside from one sinking luxury liner and one crucifixion, everything else in the theater is talking lions, talking fish, trash-talking trolls, superheroes, dinosaurs, spaceships, jedi knights, magic rings, little hobbits, invasions from space, schoolboy wizards, cursed pirate gold, ghost ships, and giant robots from outer space.
I have not even mentioned those science fiction films that never would have been made had Hollywood not been punch-drunk with bigger science fiction blockbusters, personal favorites like The Incredibles, or Dark City, or television shows like Highlander, Roswell and Firefly.
And, I’ve got to say it, even the sinking luxury liner and crucifixion are historical or supernatural or both: they are not stories of the here-and-now, not mundane, but hint at a world bigger and deeper than the fields we know.
What would I change? Nothing. Not a darn thing.
We live in the Golden Age of Science Fiction films. What will change? Aha! That is a different question. Read Remake by Connie Willis for a picture of the future of Hollywood. Sky Captain and Beowulf are the sign of Things To Come: once Hollywood finds out it is cheaper to computer animate the actors, backgrounds, props and sets, except the live-action film to go the way of the Radio Play, the Silent, or Black-and-White film; or maybe they will go the way of the Western and the Musical, not forgotten, but merely not the top draw any longer. Fantasy and Science Fiction will be the order of the day in an all-animated popular entertainment, since it is no harder to draw or render a space-castle or an exploding planet than it is to draw or render a shack or a trash-fire. Films will be wired straight into the home, as soon as some wiz-kid figures out an economic model for it.
Okay, maybe I would order them to put Firefly back on the air.
I often find myself wondering why Hollywood has never given me the keyes to the kingdom. I have a lot of ideas about how to fix things there–science fictionally, at least–but it all basically boils down to this: I just wish Hollywood were smarter. That sounds snarky as hell, I know, and if I were calling the shots I’d probably make many of the same damn mistakes I rail against, but sheesh, there are some boneheaded decisions being made by the brass in charge that even a blind salamander could see from a mile away. I mean, giving I Am Legend a happy ending fer crying out loud? That kind of thinking is what gave us an otherwise respectable movie script known as Hardwired gussied up as Asimov’s I, Robot simply because the latter sounded cooler to someone in marketing. And I’m still trying to figure out what Spielberg’s been smoking after the trainwrecks that were his last two SF films. Minority Report and War of the Worlds both started out brilliantly, which infuriated me all the more when they descended into shameless schmaltz and cliche.
Here’s the point where I’d planned to use the bully soapbox to insist that all big studio SF epics be turned over to television folk, since that’s where the truly challenging, innovative work has been done in recent years… but then I actually stopped and thought that through. Straczynski has sadly whiffed on each of his attempts to extend the legacy of Babylon 5 which wrapped a decade ago. Battlestar Galactica, after two great years, spectacularly jumped the shark in season three. Any hope I had for a miracle rabbit-out-of-the-hat finish in season four died a quick-yet-painful death when series headmaster Ron Moore blogged that the reviled non-ending of The Sopranos was brilliant, and that he whished he’d thought of it first. I never, ever bought into the hype of Lost and remain convinced they’re just making it up as they go. Hell, even Joss Wheedon, he-who-can-do-no-wrong, killed Wash for no good reason when he got the chance to take Firefly to the big screen. The bastard.
So then, if smarter isn’t the way to go, were I emperor of Tinsletown, ballsier would be my decree–hopefully the smarts would follow as a matter of course. Instead of looking at any SF offering as a summer tentpole product, a dazzlingly expensive eye-candy fix for the masses, I’d instead redirect the process. Contract with indy filmmakers to produce something not beholden to corporate beancounters and focus groups. Good science fiction, contrary to what one might believe in this post-Star Wars cinematic reality, need not be overly loud, bombastic or expensive to be good. Take John Carpenter’s Dark Star. For all its shortcomings, that film packs more clever ideas into its first 20 minutes than can be found in any 20 films like The Core or Armageddon. Just a quick glance at my bookshelf gives me a good handful of novels that could be turned into fine movies with a total price tag under $50 million each if the production were handled with the thrift indys are legendary for. The first film I’d greenlight is Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, a tour-de-force if ever there was one. The beauty of it–in filmmaker’s terms, that is–is that it is a “ship in a bottle” story. There is only one real setting, the inside of the runaway starship. There are some grandiose exterior special effects, but nothing that can’t be budgeted wisely. As long as the budget isn’t busted by signing Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Morgan Freeman, we’re in good shape. Another one I’d love to see is Patricia Anthony’s sadly out-of-print God’s Fires. The high concept? Aliens crash land in medieval Portugal and get tried by the Inquisition. As a period piece not requiring much in the way of elaborate sets–it takes place in the rural countryside–or elaborate special effects, this is one that could be done on an indy budget now and wow ’em at Sundance with its grim absurdity. Once those two films had struck box office gold, however, I’d unleash the monster–William Hjortsberg’s Gray Matters. Anyone who’s ever read that novel just had the top of their head blow off just now. “It’s impossible to film!” they protest. It would be challenging, no doubt, but as it is the quintessential “brains in jars” novel, what experimental filmmaker worth his or her salt could pass up the opportunity to tackle this Everest of adaptations? The sex, and violence, and sex, and irony, and sex would certainly differentiate it from the likes of Starship Dave… and if I may be so bold, the psychological explorations of sex in the novel translated to the silver screen would be far more relevant and engaging than that in Kubrick’s disappointing Eyes Wide Shut. At the very least, it wouldn’t be as boring. All joking aside, this is all you need to know: Brains in jars. Horny brains in jars. Trust me on this one.
Hmmm… maybe it’s not such a mystery why Hollywood keeps me at arm’s length after all.